There’s a queer way to think about marriage

I am among those who have vociferously argued about the pitfalls of same-sex marriage. I, and others like me, voice my apprehension about the original radical spirit of “queer”. We look at something that seems so right and interrogate it in a strange way.

Our voices are muted and our opinions struggle to emerge in discourses about same-sex marriage because they are incorrectly thrown into the homophobic pot.

It is vital to make room for queer ideas about same-sex marriage. “Queer” refers to anyone who is at odds with the norm and who resists the mostly middle-class stereotype of “the family”.

Among the papers I’ve written on this issue, one is triggered by the fact that the legalisation of same-sex marriage in South Africa in 2006 was greeted as a victory for gay and lesbian people and this victory was documented in the 2008 book To Have and to Hold: The Making of Same-Sex Marriage in South Africa, edited by Melanie Judge, Anthony Manion and Shaun de Waal.

They argue that those who supported same-sex marriage “adequately interrogated the role and function of marriage”. I put this claim to the test and conclude that, rather than opening a space for the “recognition of diverse sexualities and relationship forms”, the Civil Union Act is limited to those people who identify as gay or lesbian.

In a forthcoming paper, I argue that the literature on same-sex marriage in South Africa before and after the passing of the Civil Union Act 2006, though it acknowledges queer critique, resolves such critique in favour of the “right” to marry. I also argue for the necessity for a queer anti-homophobic critique of same-sex marriage to broaden debates about recognition.

There is much to be learned from the many versions of “nonstandard” families in South Africa. These versions are not based in the myth of marriage and all that entails: monogamy, children, a picket fence and respectability. A person needs only to look around where they are and they will see how diversely people choose to live their lives.

And yet the idea that same-sex marriage is somehow a form of liberation is carried through in the vast majority of writing. But there is also a large amount of anti-homophobic academic and everyday writing from thinkers and activists that probes the numerous problems associated with same-sex marriage.

Perhaps the problem is that by questioning same-sex marriage it could mean that you’re automatically a homophobe. But the under-represented voices I’m referring to here are certainly not homophobic. Many are queer.

One of the problems with same-sex marriage is that it is, by definition, limited. It only refers to gay and lesbian people and this runs against the contemporary grain of society, which is slowly coming to terms with the fact that identity can be flexible.

The other problem is that the many rewards of marriage are only available to married gay and lesbian people. Why can’t all these delicious rewards be available to all people regardless of their marital status.

And, finally, the fierce pro-same-sex marriage debates happening all over the world are so loud that they have drowned out centuries of critical feminist perspectives and activism on marriage.

Marriage is the place where the state regulates the family, gender, race and patriarchy. How on earth did these truths get sidelined for a stamp of approval? Radical feminist Paula Ettel brick asked more than 20 years ago: Since when is marriage a path to liberation?

But for many, same-sex marriage is a path to liberation; it is claimed by pro same-sex marriage activists that this act has the potential to transform the institutions of marriage and gender.

The reality, as social theorist Michael Warner has argued, is that married gay and lesbian people are just as likely to divorce, cheat or abuse each other as anyone else.

And, rather than being a path to liberation, same-sex marriage provides the perfect tool for the state to control and monitor who is and who is not respectable.

So what would a queer reimagining of marriage look like? Nothing. That’s because the most powerful way to oppose marriage is simply not to get married.

Philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler noted that the task should be to “rework and revise the social organisation of friendship, sexual contacts, and community to produce nonstate-centered forms of support and alliance”.

TL McCormick is a lecturer of applied linguistics at the University of Johannesburg. This article was first published in The Conversation

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